Postcard from Capetown: Adventures of a scrambled exile: Mary Russell meets Annmarie Wolpe, who has returned to the scene of her traumatic arrest

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN Annmarie Wolpe's phone rings in her university office, she answers it warmly. So warmly, in fact, that it's hard to believe she's speaking to 30-year-old Nicholas, the son she abandoned when he was only a few month's old.

Wolpe was a young Johannesburg mother of 34 when, in 1963, her lawyer husband Harold was arrested, certain to be called to stand trial along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu in the now-famous Rivonia treason case. In The Long Way Home (Virago, pounds 6.99) Wolpe describes Harold's prison break-out, his escape across the border into Swaziland, and his final dash for freedom disguised as a clergyman.

The story, however, is not so much Harold's as that of the wife and children he was forced to leave behind, and of Annmarie's own final abandonment of those same children. Arrested herself, after Harold's escape, separated from her ailing son and two small daughters, released and then threatened with rearrest, she finally snapped. An intermediary was persuaded to approach the South African police with a request that she be allowed to leave the country. The answer, amazingly, was yes - provided she left the following day. Handing the children into the care of Anelina, who kept house for her, and of Marlene, the nurse employed to look after baby Nicholas, who had been ill, she fled to England.

Thirty years on Wolpe has returned to South Africa to work alongside her husband in the University of the Western Cape. Her office is a modest prefab. A raincoat with a C & A label is draped across a chair. A walking stick - necessary to cope with encroaching osteo-arthritis - leans against a wall. Outside, wintry rains drive in from the Cape Flats to lash the campus. Wolpe, now 64, is home - bringing her past with her.

The fact that she abandoned a seriously sick baby, and two small girls who had already suffered the trauma of losing their father under frightening circumstances, is something she deals with in a matter-of-fact way. Had she stayed, undoubtedly to be rearrested, she would, she says, have been totally unable to do anything for her family: 'And as for Nicholas, he still had a tube in his lung and had to be kept, as far as was possible, in a germ-free environment. Moving him would have endangered his life.' The two daughters were subsequently allowed to join their parents, but it was another five months before Nicholas was fit to travel.

All three children have strong feelings about what they perceive as their mother's abandonment of them. Nicholas is particularly bitter. They are critical of the precedence their father gave to politics. As children, they concealed their origins and grew up hating the former South Africa for what it had done to their family. Now, with their parents' return to South Africa, they are suffering a second separation, a feeling which their mother tries to ease by spending a quarter of her salary phoning them in England.

'I wrote this book,' says Wolpe, 'to tell the story from the women's and children's point of view. I wasn't active in the movement at the time. I was simply drawn into it. Everyone suffered, and it's only now that we are learning the extent of that suffering.'

Even the return home has failed to lay the ghosts to rest. Returnees are regarded with hostility, as people who haven't really shared in the suffering of those who stayed, she says. Nicholas is the only one of the Wolpe children to come back, but, ironically, he can't get a job - it's because, his mother says, he's white.

In her own field of work especially, that of gender studies, the problems are enormous: 'Women are driven not only by ethnic differences but also by sexual inequalities. The Women's League is a political movement devoted to the ANC's struggle but not especially to the women's struggle which is seen as simply diversionary. Feminism is regarded as a purely Western phenomenon which has no place in African culture.' African women, she feels, though strong, are oppressed and not willing to admit it: 'Most of the township shebeens are run by women, for example, yet a woman must not be seen drinking in public.'

The Long Way Home paints a picture of middle-class Johannesburg affluence. In the Sixties, the Wolpes had money, servants and influential friends, one of whom provided the bribe needed to effect Harold's escape from prison. Their dinner guests included Joe Slovo, who flirted with Wolpe, and Ruth First, whose intellectualism intimidated her.

Nevertheless, when the going got tough, they were on their own. And they are still on their own in the country they fled 30 years ago, separated from children and grandchildren, isolated by their long exile and finally by their colour: 'African women,' says Wolpe, 'imply that they have something special which white women don't know about.'

In the new South Africa, it seems, some returnees can still feel like exiles in their own country.